You need to possess a certain sort of Something to really enjoy owning and riding a classic bike. Does Steve The Toast have that Something? He’s probably going to self-destruct in the attempt to find out…
Enjoy more RealClassic reading in the monthly magazine.
Click here to subscribe & save.
Classic British grey skies greeted me when I squinted out the window on the Sunday morning. This seemed most fitting, really, as I was to spend a large portion of the day riding a bike of a truly classic vintage design. Fitting, but not particularly welcoming. It wasn’t frosty, but it was as cold as it could be before everything goes white. Peering through the condensation I could have sworn the trees were shivering.
We had stayed with friends in Norfolk, a visit to whom had tied in nicely with the purchase of a Royal Enfield Sixty-5, after it had fallen from grace, more of which later. Collecting the bike later on was the order of the day – and the day needed to warm up considerably before collecting it. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t. No amount of coffee proffered and drunk could delay our departure long enough for the ambient temperature to rise, so after the umpteenth cup I finally gave in and decided we might as well get ready to leave.
Donning everything I possibly could, and doing a passable impersonation of the Michelin Man, I wandered outside to where a smirking, car-driving Other Half was waiting with our car and an Enfield that was slowly ticking over. As the Sixy-5 sat there, it shook with each firing stroke but I thought — really — it was just shivering. The bike was coming to live with us for the purposes of visiting classic shows in the coming year, alongside Olive ‘Er-in-car’s Royal Enfield Bullet 500. The plan for the journey home was to follow said car until we reached familiar (to me) territory and then ‘erself would be free to put her foot down and leave me to thump-thump-thump my weary way home at the bike’s maximum velocity.
As each exhalation steamed out of my helmet, something akin to a dragon’s fiery breath, it reminded me to watch the road’s surface as we traversed the country lanes covered in damp leaves. From our starting point in the middle of nowhere in the heart of Norfolk, back to a probably even-less-sunny Bedfordshire, I realised it was going to be a long, slow ride. Why, oh why hadn’t I already had a tow-bar fitted to the car and why hadn’t I had the foresight to purchase a bike trailer? There are times when I could surely kick myself, however, luckily for me, the amount of clothing I had on didn’t allow enough movement and would have softened the blow anyway.
With cheery goodbyes to all and sundry, we set forth on our journey home. As I pulled away from the kerb, I waved and shot a last look at the previous owner. Far from seeing a tear in his eye, I thought I noticed a wry grin spread across his face — he was probably wondering if I would be able to stop at the end of the cul-de-sac or, more likely, run into the back of our car.
His smirking was in vain as I was already fully aware of the almost non-functioning front brake after the previous days’ excursion around the Norfolk lanes. The trial run had seen me approach a T-junction at top speed and have to swing across the corner, having only managed to scrub off half my velocity. This inability to rescind forward motion was one of the main reasons for the previous owners’ disenchantment with the bike, and it did indeed make it ‘involving’ to ride. It is, in all probability, the very first item I should focus on in the forthcoming ‘winter of discontent — therefore improvements’ program that I have set out for both bikes.
As we exited the village, I realized that I had to keep my distance from our car. Not only was close proximity dangerous from the inability to decrease my forward motion, but as the air was completely still (and not even the slightest hint of the possibility of a trace of a breeze) the nasty unleaded fumes issuing from the cars’ exhaust were just hanging in the air — and I was breathing them straight in.
There are some lovely tight bends in this quaint part of Norfolk, (or should I write Naaarfaulk to give it local colour?), made all the more interesting by the thick coat of leaves that carpet them at this time of year. Further more, as the roads were damp too, some had been turned into soft, squelchy mulch which enhanced their slippery characteristics into something akin to riding on fresh porridge. Ironic really, as that is exactly what the previous owner had imbibed for his breakfast, and I hadn’t found it appealing at that point of the day either.
We slushed and I slid my way out onto major roads, and once in Brandon I overtook a line (Yes! Really!) of slow moving traffic — as in they were obeying the speed limit, one which the Enfield was capable of breaking — and by now I was cold enough not to want to ride quite that slowly. Not, to be honest, that I ever want to ride that slowly. I waved to my co-traveller as I slithered past on the slidemaster, (sorry, Speedmaster) tyres, on the damp surface, and headed for the front of the queue of cars making their painfully slow way along the 30mph limit.
Once free of the choking fumes I actually began to enjoy my ride, the little bike thrumming along underneath me. The seat, a sturdy piece of oak cunningly disguised with a plastic cover, allowed all the vibration from the little engine’s exertions to come straight through to my nether regions. The constant massage did nothing to improve the flow of blood or the ever-decreasing temperature of said region. As Enfield and I whipped along the A1065 past Lakenheath, I prayed for the Americans to be taking off to bomb someone so I could stop at the fence and glory in the warming fury that are jet engine afterburners. The thought of all those engines on re-heat brought renewed vigor to my right hand and I pointlessly twisted the throttle only to find that it made no difference to our forward velocity. The bike was literally flat out.
I was passed by a large 4×4 about half a mile before the Mildenhall roundabout, and 30 seconds later we approached that junction almost simultaneously. He was braking for the roundabout, a luxury I could not hope to emulate, and as we were both turning right onto the A11, I went on the left hand side of him, dashed out between two cars already traversing the roundabout (and who were intending to take the next exit to my left), and swung wide around its circumference — scaring the daylights out of an old couple in their Skoda (what else?) as they had not expected a motorcycle to appear from between the two cars that were taking the exit to their right, therefore allowing their entrance to the roundabout.
Phew! Nipping behind them in the position that they had stopped in (directly across the roundabout – where else?) I took the exit I wanted and chugged back up to my maximum pace. Shortly, the 4×4 passed me again with incredulous looks from both driver and passenger. Had they known that (a) I had little or no front brake, or (b) had they been able to see what I looked like with full-face helmet, balaclava and sunglasses removed, I feel sure I could have doubled their horror.
Sunglasses? I hear you ask. I’m nothing if not an optimist. You may also quite fairly ask yourself, had I not considered slowing earlier by use of the back brake and the gearbox, allowing a more genteel approach to the junction? I would have to say that it would also seem a more than appropriate question. My answer, of course, would be, quite simply; no. Why on earth would I want to slow down? Here I am, riding a bike which is so slow that it cannot even break the national speed limit by enough to warrant a fine; it gives you sufficient time for a small but succulent picnic, coffee, followed by brandy with cigars between moving away from ‘rest’ and reaching its lazy top speed. So, it would seem to me to be utterly preposterous to want to waste any of the ‘gained momentum’ by slowing down for a junction, even if I possibly could.
Incidentally, the rear brake on the Sixty-5 is just as recalcitrant as this particular front brake had proven to be, as the design modifications made by Royal Enfield during the production of their ‘Sixties throwback’ meant that they changed it from the left to the right side… resulting in extra linkages and loss of power.
I gradually sank into a miserable reverie. Suddenly, for no good or apparent reason, a wave of mechanical sympathy overwhelmed me and I allowed the throttle to close ever-so slightly, and watched the speedometer back off from swinging wildly backwards and forwards around the 70 mark to swinging wildly backwards and forwards around the 60 mark. Riding indolent, sloth-like, laid-back, lethargic motorcycles along country lanes in the summer, in the company of other motorcyclists riding indolent, sloth-like, laid-back, lethargic motorcycles… is good fun. Riding indolent, sloth-like, laid-back, lethargic motorcycles hundreds of miles along flat, featureless and freezing dual carriageways, being passed by everything from thundering trucks that blow you about to young oiks on noisy, buzzing scooters who point and laugh as they pass… is not my idea of fun. Which is a damn shame, as that is exactly what I found myself doing on this cold, damp and miserable morning.
Eventually, the A14 came up and I merged with the other users into a more westerly direction. I was now traveling at just over half the speed at which I had last traversed this road on Christine, my now ex-Harley. I realised it would be a while until I got home. I felt that familiar need to visit the little boy’s room but didn’t want to stop and waste time, so I decided to carry on for a while — despite the vibration bringing my need ever to the fore.
From the A14 I eventually rejoined the southwesterly A11, which meant another 9 miles until I would reach the westerly A505 and the last major stint home. I reasoned that ‘Er-in-car would have stopped for driver refueling at the Golden-Arched eatery before Duxford, so with gritted teeth I squeezed my legs up against the tank and steeled myself to another 20 or so minutes of riding before allowing myself to undergo the ritual of removing enough layers of clothing to allow access to the equipment necessary to relieve my over-stocking of waste fluids. As I vibrated along, freezing and needing the WC, the thought went through my mind: ‘Will (brr) I (brr) make (brr) it (brr)’ – and the bike was named. Wilbur. It fitted the era of the original design and its pioneering lack of performance – perfectly.
I was now paying the heavy price for drinking so much coffee when I had been waiting in vain for the day to warm up before the ride home. Oh, imprudent, although ruggedly handsome, witty and charming chap that I am. Eventually the roundabout where the restaurant is situated arrived, and I spotted the car stashed sneakily in the furthest reaches of the car park. I pulled into the space next to it and, having availed myself of the restaurant’s rest-room, (much to my relief), I purchased the smallest burger (honestly — oh, with cheese, if you can call such a wafer-thing slice of re-processed and probably re-coloured animal fat ‘cheese’) and wandered out to the car park where the Enfield sat smelling suspiciously of very, very hot oil. Burning, in fact. It was obvious to anyone within a 50-yard radius that Wilbur had reacted adversely to being held at such a high velocity for such a long period. There was a mist of oil on top of the crankcase and around the oil filler. Another cleaning and polishing job awaited me.
Having scoffed the vaguely warm burger, I set off leaving my partner to finish the three-course dinner she had purchased for herself. Spots of rain on my visor as I had entered the car park had foretold of bad things to come, so I’d wanted to make as quick an exit as possible from my pit stop. Duxford soon came and went, along with the rash of speed cameras, sorry, safety cameras on the A505 where I entered Baldock. I chose the back road home, avoiding town centers and a further row of safety cameras that for once actually did threaten me as they are in a 30 limit, a speed limit in which even the Enfield could manage to collect a fine.
20 minutes later saw me pulling into my drive, the most welcome sight of the day. It wasn’t a particularly long journey, or (if I’m really honest) cold in the extreme for that matter, but the slow top speed had made it seem the most laborious trip after a lifetime of owning bikes of greater performance, especially as I was traveling alone. And, let’s be honest, it isn’t difficult to own a bike of greater performance than Wilbur – most Jap 250s do leave him standing. Some 125cc scooters also. This, however, is a situation that may change.
One of the parameters for improvements (and there are many – which is what makes it such an interesting project bike) is in the performance department, along with brakes, looks, lights and general electrics, and the quality and amount of the sound he makes. Highest priority on that list is to strip down the front brake and find out the cause of its irreverent, derisive performance. This has to be the most important thing — closely followed by engine power and gearing. If we can squeeze a little more oomph out of him, then we can up the gearing to give a more relaxed ride and better top end cruising speed.
Oh, I could go and buy a Pan European, but where’s the fun in that?